My wife and I were antiquing recently when I stumbled upon a piece of furniture that was familiar even though I don’t think I’d ever seen one in person before.
I did remember where I’d seen a picture of one before so I hopped on Pegs and Tails, which is my go-to for antiques identification and restoration. I found this article that seems to support what I thought.
So, it’s possible that the nice little “end table” with a hinged lid and storage inside, began its life as a Georgian Commode.
I’ve put off writing about this because I was waiting for our shipment to arrive from the UK so I could reference some of this first hand.
One of the types of furniture that I found in the UK that piqued my interest was the oak coffer. Since the middle ages, the oak coffer or oak chest has been an essential piece of furniture for a household and not only served as storage but as a seat. The earlier coffers were primarily plank construction, something that changed during Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) when panelled coffers became more popular. (English Furniture, Its Essentials and Characteristics by John C. Rogers, Published by Offices of Country Life, 1923)
While in the UK, I rarely saw the earlier plank chests (I saw a few later 20th century versions), but I did see quite a few of the panelled chests. Once I started looking at them more closely I realized that they are similar to the oak chests that Peter Follansbee has been talking about for quite some time. When I re-watched an episode of “The Woodwright’s Shop” it really motivated me to look into this type of antique and how they were made. In this episode, Mr. Follansbee had observed that there were grooves in the top of the stiles that didn’t seem to make sense.
The groove itself is for the panel to ride in and is only needed between the mortises for the rails. Functionally there would be no reason for the groove to go all the way to the end of the stile. Mr. Follansbee went on to show how the rear portion of the skate (or runner) of the plow plane would ride too high for the iron to cut the groove unless you cut a groove for the skate to ride in.
I had seen this episode many times before but I’d never had a chance to look at any old coffers up close. Since then, I’ve seen dozens and we also own one that was made in the late 17th century (about 1670). I’ve found that many of the panelled construction coffers do show these grooves to some extent, however, the age of these pieces and the fact that many have been repaired at a much later date can wipe out some of these clues.
The following are of my coffer that just arrived, so I was able to take better pictures.
It’s been incredibly exciting to be able to find supporting evidence for this process and even more exciting to be able to handle so many of these pieces. I’ll be following up with more on the oak coffer since I’ve found many more interesting things in mine. I’ve also been sorting through my photographs of all the others and continually find new and interesting things.
And now for something completely different. While in the UK, we did a good bit of sightseeing. From Inverness to Long Melford we put some serious miles on our vehicles and saw some incredible places along the way. I have most of the places we visited below, although I could easily be forgetting a few.
While we were living in Cambridgeshire we went to Bury St. Edmunds and visited the abbey ruins there. Even though we had already seen a dozen or more ancient abbeys that were in better shape than this one, our visit to these ruins made an impression. We had already visited Jedburgh Abbey and St. Andrews Cathedral as well as a few castles that were around the same age as these ruins, but on this sunny and beautiful day it hit me that these ruins (nearly 1000 years old) had people just sitting and having a nice lunch and a chat on them.
The casualness of this interaction stunned me even though we had been visiting castles and ruins for a year. I had not become familiar enough with these ancient buildings and ruins to see them as anything but objects to be revered and honoured, so I thought it was amazing that they could just be seen as a beautiful space to relax and chill.
One thing that bugged me for a while was the name Bury St. Edmunds. Why was there a verb in the name and wasn’t it a bit morbid? Well, come to find out that the Bury comes from an earlier form of the English ‘borough’ or German ‘burg’ and means fortress or stronghold. The town was initially called Beodricsworth until the remains of the martyred king St. Edmund were moved there, then it became St. Edmundsbury and then Bury St. Edmunds. I later found that there are a few other places in the UK with Bury in front.
One bit of historical trivia that caught my eye was that the abbey is connected to the Magna Carta.
Another interesting tidbit is that we only stumbled on this as we were going to Lavenham to check out a couple of antique shops. And Lavenham is going to be the subject of another post.
One of the first projects I’ve started working on since moving back to the US is a rocker I picked up at an antique shop. Normally, you don’t find a piece in this shape in an antique store, but it looked like someone wanted to have a go at it and then gave up. The caning had been removed and some of the paint (original dark red) had been removed, but other than that it was just in a sorry state.
As I went over this piece, I noticed some things that I would change when I rebuilt it. An example is the rockers, which split along the grain in several places. I’ve decided not to try to reuse these rockers, as I did some experimenting with glue-ups and looked at all the holes created by other repairs and figured it wasn’t worth it.
Another thing I decided to change is how the seat was put together. There were two dowels holding the sides to the front and back pieces of the seat. The side pieces were curved and they split in the short grain.
Other than that I didn’t see much that I wanted to change so I took the chair apart.
Once I had the chair apart (except for the top rail and the side piece that I think had been glued together with epoxy or similar) I stripped and cleaned the pieces so I could better evaluate each piece and the joinery.
This is when I found that the frame for the back caning had split into dozens of small pieces, so this will need to be replaced.
Next up in part 2 I make parts for a new seat frame.
A few months ago, my wife and I picked up a couple of chairs that we wanted to work on. Both had caned seats and one (the Empire style rocker here ) also has a caned back.
I’d been reading about seat caning for a while and have been following Ed Hammond and The Wicker Woman on YouTube. The book I got was “The Craft of Chair Seat Weaving, with Cane, Rush, Splint, and Rope” by George Sterns. The book is a very good starter and I referred to it quite often for the basics. The YouTube videos are much better for the details and to better be able to adjust for the curves and other fiddly stuff. I also used Ed Hammond and The Wicker Woman as guides for the “no knot” method for the underside.
To start out, I stripped the chair and then prepped it for a new paint job. I went with milk paint and initially tried what I thought was Barn Red, but turned out to be closer to Hot Pink. Rather than remove this and start over I just painted Pitch Black over it. I did not want to distress this, but I figure that it will distress naturally very nicely with the red/pink underneath.
I had several false starts on the caning portion. As I got past the verticals and into the horizontals I had to unweave several sections and start over. It took quite a bit of thinking, doing, undoing, thinking, doing, undoing before I got the verticals and horizontals that I thought would work.
Once I got into the diagonals I realized that there were still issues with spacing in the horizontals and verticals. I had to figure out how to either work around some of these obstacles or redo them. I ended up doing both.
Still need to add the border around the sides and front. This has been a huge learning experience, but I do feel better about getting started on the Empire Style Rocker, once my repairs are finished on that one.
Update 26 July 2020: I finally finished the last of the border and cleaned up the underside.
I ended up doing more of a hybrid ‘no knot’ with a couple of knots due to being unable to plan ahead or stage my cane ends well enough. I surprised myself with how strong these cane seats are: I’ve already sat in this chair a few times and I’m a rather large person.
I have a couple more caning projects coming up am ready to improve on this one.
In Part 1, I had finished stripping and disassembling the rocker and had decided to replace the rockers and the side pieces of the seat. After that, I also decided to replace the back of the seat. This because the sides had been connected to the back with dowels, but the way the dowels and the joints fit, they did not make a good joint. If you look at the picture below, you’ll see that at each end, a half a hole for a dowel. So one of the dowels on each side was not even embedded in the back piece.
I then looked at the way the sides connected to the front piece and decided that instead of a couple of dowels, I’d use a loose tenon. This would create more shear strength, across the grain, at this crucial point.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the loose tenon or any of the fitting process, but I do have pictures with layout lines and also where I filled in the original dowel holes.
The following pictures show me cutting and shaping the back piece.
I took the number of holes from the original and spaced them a little more evenly before drilling them out.
I countersunk the holes.
Using a bit from a roll that a wonderful friend and classmate from the Chippendale Furniture School gave me.
After quite a bit of dry fitting and tweaking the joints, I was ready to glue up the seat.
For most of my projects, I tend to use hide glue for the joints and PVA for the splits, cracks, and fills (like for filling the dowel holes). My thinking is that for most, if not all, repairs I can use PVA adhesives because the idea is that they should never need to be undone at all…ever. This is for repairs and restoration jobs, but not necessarily for conservation work. For the joints, I use hide glue because I want to be sympathetic to the piece and I want to make sure that the piece can be repaired / restored in the future and still be sympathetic to the piece if that future restorer wishes. If in the future, someone repairs the piece with whatever adhesive they have available, that’s fine because I won’t be around to see them muck it all up 😉
For Part 3 I’ll remake the rockers and discuss the changes I made to the dimensions. I’ll also discuss the back frame and the broken pieces I had to replace for the caning.
I’ve just started working on some projects for a customer and I figured I’d get started with a quick and straightforward restoration. Quick for me is a relative term as this “quick” project took me almost a month of weekends and evenings.
This one is a maple end table that has seen better days. It was not old, maybe vintage, but it needed some attention.
I started by taking it apart so I could evaluate the parts individually. There were a couple of screws that needed to be extracted the hard way and a couple that needed to be cut, but other than that it was in good shape. Drilled out the screws, filled the holes with dowel and then redrilled for new screws.
This was constructed with slotted screws, but since it will be a user piece rather than a showpiece I replaced them with McFeely’s square drive screws.
After stripping the individual pieces I found some beautiful maple that really popped after a coat of tung oil. I love the chatoyance I got on almost every piece of the table. Unfortunately, much of it will not often be seen unless the person either picks up the table or lays down on the floor to look at it.
The table top had some pretty serious gaps from shrinkage, so I re-glued it.
I was very happily surprised that so much of the ink stain was just in the paint and didn’t go too deep. The tabletop had some very minor cupping and twisting, but the battens on the bottom and the gallery rails on top took it all out.
After a light sanding, I started with 3 or 4 coats of Dark Half (1/2 dark tung oil and 1/2 citrus solvent) from Real Milkpaint. After letting it cure, I then added a couple of coats of garnet shellac and then a couple of coats of blonde shellac.
All that’s left for this piece is to give it a few coats of wax (maybe a dark wax) and then find it a new home. It’s already been conscripted as a work table in our livingroom. I’m using it to hold my caning tools and supplies as I work on some chairs.